Felix tapped for 8th straight Opening Day start

Righty is 6-0 and Mariners are unbeaten with ace in season opener

February 20th, 2016

PEORIA, Ariz. -- For Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, change is the operative word this spring. New faces all around him, new results hoped for when it comes to a playoff push for the Mariners, and yes, a new look for The King himself as he prepares for his eighth straight Opening Day start.

"I just wanted to do something different," Hernandez said after arriving at camp sporting a lengthy reddish goatee and a shock of white hair atop his head. "I wanted to be blond. I was tired of seeing my black hair in the mirror all the time, so I decided to try blond."

Mariners make introductions on first day

Hernandez said the new look will be kept all season. As for the new teammates? With 16 of Seattle's 28 pitchers in their first Mariners camp, introductions will take time.

"There's a lot of new faces," Hernandez said. "We'll see. We just have to go out there and play. There's a lot of guys competing for jobs here and it's going to be a fun Spring Training."

One certainty atop that culture change is Hernandez. He's been a Mariner since signing with the club as a 16-year-old Venezuelan prospect in 2002. It's almost hard to believe, but Hernandez will turn 30 during the first week of the regular season in April, shortly after he'll make his ninth Opening Day start for Seattle.

As much as things change, Hernandez has been a rock atop Seattle's rotation. New manager Scott Servais smiled Saturday when asked if he's ready to commit to Hernandez for that regular-season opener in Texas on April 4.

"There's a good shot," he said. "You can run with that if you want."

"Are you surprised?" Hernandez said when told he'd be in line for the first start. "It's always fun to throw Opening Day. I can't wait to do that."

Servais might be a first-year manager, but he knows full well what it means to have a bona-fide ace in place.

"It's huge. It's everything," he said. "Everybody is always talking about the No. 1 starter. We have a legit No. 1."

And Servais knows what motivation runs deep within Hernandez as he begins his 12th season in the Majors. Hernandez has earned six All-Star berths, won a Cy Young, thrown a perfect game and is coming off a season in which he went 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA, but there is one glaring hole in his resume.

"I talked with him a little about it in the offseason," said Servais. "Felix has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs. And it's time. We have a lot of work to do to get there and he knows that as well, but for a player to have that kind of career and not pitch in the playoffs yet, it's up to us to get the pieces around him and it's up to him to pull a few guys along with him. It's going to be a joint effort."

Hernandez has been through enough to know playoff talk in February doesn't mean anything. But he acknowledges the burn runs deep.

"It's always motivation, every year, trying to do something special. I'm trying to make the playoffs," he said. "It drives me crazy. It's been a while. A long time. Well, I've never been in the playoffs in the big leagues and I can't wait to be there."

Hernandez clearly will play a big role in getting Seattle back to the postseason for the first time since 2001. He's thrown more than 200 innings in eight straight seasons. Former Mariners outfield coach Andy Van Slyke said in a radio interview over the offseason that Hernandez is pitching with a torn elbow tendon, but Hernandez dismissed that with a wave.

"No. It's not true. I'm fine. He said a lot of stuff that is not true," Hernandez said. "My health is fine. I know you guys said at the end of last year that I was hurt, but I wasn't. I'm fine. I'm ready to throw."